Book Review: A History of Paleontology Illustration


When I wrote my essay on violent interactions between prehistoric monsters in art, I thought I had touched on something intriguing. I penned a proposal for a more focused article on the topic and sent it out to magazines purported to feature articles at the intersection of science and culture. The response I got was almost uniformly the same. Not only were the magazines not interested in dinosaurs, but illustrations of dinosaurs were not art. As M.J.T. Mitchell explained in his interesting (yet deeply flawed) The Last Dinosaur Book, illustrations of prehistoric animals are often seen as "both juvenilia and kitsch."

Yet I am not convinced that paleo art can be so easily relegated to the sidelines, and neither is Jane Davidson. In the preface to her recently published historical volume, A History Of Paleontology Illustration, she makes her point clear from the beginning;

The science of paleontology has always been inextricably tied to art. ... There is no need to draw a distinction between scientific illustration and other forms of art.

Even before fossils were recognized as being the preserved remains of once-living creatures, they were fascinating objects, and curiosities like fossil shark teeth appeared in paintings as early as Petrus Christus' 15th century work "A Goldsmith in His Shop." (The trail of fossil-inspired work probably stretches back even further, as Adrienne Mayor documented in both The First Fossil Hunters and Fossil Legends of the First Americans.) In more "scientific" works, like compendia of rare mineralogical and biological artifacts, the accurate illustration of natural curiosities was essential (particularly since many of them were unique or rare). The illustration of fossils long preceded the development of paleontology as a science.

With the advent of paleontology, however, illustration became even more essential in popular works, scientific monographs, and even catalogs like Ward's. Paleontological illustration was not just about the large, charismatic vertebrates, however. Although dinosaurs are the most often discussed creatures in the book, Davidson took pains to include illustrations of fossil invertebrates and plants, as well as an enlightening discourse of how paleontologists reconciled the ancient "amphibian" tracks called Cheirotherium with the fossils of "Labyrinthodon." The techniques used to bring ancient creatures back to life provides important details in each section, and there can be little doubt that the efforts of artists have always been indispensable to paleontologists.

The subject of the book is certainly interesting, and Davidson has put much effort into accumulating examples, but A History of Paleontology Illustration is more of an encyclopedia or reference book than a volume that can be read from cover-to-cover. If the book is being used as an incomplete reference no such difficult arises, but when read from beginning to end the organization of the book can be problematic. The first three chapters are in chronological order, but from that point on topics like "The Paleontologist Poses With Fossils" and "Early Photography in Paleontology, 1840-1931" form the basis of each chapter. Even within sections there is sometimes the tendency to jump around, and as a whole the book lacks a strong narrative voice.

There are a few other stylistic and editorial problems with the book, as well. One is that many important topics and artists are either overlooked or given very short shrift. William Buckland's use of illustrations in his lectures is omitted, John Martin's apocalyptic visions of the Mesozoic are quickly passed, Jurassic Park is not mentioned at all, and the second Dinosaur Renaissance of the late 20th century is only hinted at. (For discussions of Buckland and Martin, see Scenes From Deep Time and The Earth on Show, and an early account of the 2nd Dinosaur Renaissance can be found in The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs.) The revolutions in 20th century paleontological illustration, particularly why the way we see dinosaurs has changed, receive little more than a few pages of speculative prose, a treatment that I find unacceptable. I think a discussion of how the public became acquainted with "the new dinosaurs," particularly through books like The Dinosaur Heresies and Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, is long overdue.

The illustrations in Davidson's book also left me feeling a little unsatisfied. In many cases pictures are described in the text but are not included in the book. I feel somewhat cheated only being able to read a description of Henry de la Beche's picture of William Buckland amongst a group of prehistoric animals simultaneously struck by diarrhea (I'm not kidding). The work is not devoid of illustration, of course, there are certainly as many as nearly any other book on the topic of paleo art, but some images present another problem. Some illustrations, like Waterhouse Hawkins' vision of St. George fighting a pterodactyl, are fuzzy. It is easy to make out rough spots caused by the computer pixels. This annoyance made me almost want to slam my head against the desk when I read these lines in a later chapter;

Even digital images in modern online journals, which we might expect to be technically superior, turn out to be less than satisfactory; the images in the printed editions are better.

The proliferation of low-quality digital images in modern publications, both online and in print, has been one of my biggest frustrations. It seems that ease has overtaken aesthetics.

There are other points I could nitpick about A History of Paleontology Illustration, but I will leave such relatively minor issues aside. I think Davidson has written a valuable introduction to paleontological illustration that could very well serve as a jumping-off point for future studies. There are many books chock-full of paleo art, but Davidson has contributed a new, quick overview containing information I had not previously seen elsewhere. The work of O'Connor and Rudwick might be more synthetic, and I feel that we still need someone to rigorously review recent paleo art (including comics and movies), but Davidson has done an admirable job of recounting the basic history of paleo art from the 15th century to the beginning of the 20th century. (Her discussions of artistic techniques, particularly of classic artists like Dale David Owen and Erwin Christiansen, are especially valuable as I have not seen them discussed in detail previously.) Simply put, I recommend picking up A History of Paleontology Illustration and putting it on your shelf next to Scenes From Deep Time and The Earth on Show.

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Check out Brian's new review of A History of Paleontology Illustration (Life of the Past) by Jane Davidson, in Palaeontologia Electronica: It is rare for fossils to be featured in fine art, but in the 15th century painting A Goldsmith in His Shop, Possibly Saint Eligius by the Flemish master…
Dinner inside the belly of Iguanodon.My fellow scibling Jonah Lehrer has a new piece in SEED extending the argument from the end of his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist called "The Future of Science... Is Art?" It's pretty interesting, exploring the relation between physics and neuroscience to art…
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Henry de la Beche's "Duria Antiquior," an image of the carnage that must have taken place on the shores of the ancient Dorset.Years ago, when touring dino-mation exhibits were all the rage, my parents took me to "see the dinosaurs" at the Morris Museum. I was terrified. I had seen dinosaur…

Art is for art's sake. If it has any other use, it just can't be art.

For example, when Russell W. Porter made illustrations of the great 200 inch telescope on Mt Palomar, the results were only engineering porn, not art. He had to work from drawings, because the telescope didn't exist yet, but that isn't creative enough to make them art...

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

Carel wrote on similar perceptions regarding wildlife art generally over at his blog Rigor Vitae - you may want to check that out.

If Lassi's statement above means that the reconstructions produced by Carl Buell aren't art then Lassi must be wrong. Res ipsa loquitur.

As someone with a fine arts background, I would have to say no, paleo-themed illustration are not fine art, much as I daily wish they were.

The fine art world traces its Western trajectory from cave paintings and ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religious worship-markings, and is currently rarely concerned with topics other than art-making and a few socio-political concerns. It is also rarely concerned with concrete answers to those political concerns, and instead seeks to show the tension between two sides.

The problem of fitting in paleo or other scientific illustration is in what point is it making? To be accurate and precise, which is not where fine art is right now.

It's not to say scientific illustrations are not art at all; they are art, just not fine art in the post-post-modern era. (Dammit.)

I'll have to keep an eye out for this book; seems well worth it despite your keen criticisms, Brian.

Glendon --

I realized a long time ago that fine art is what you can get away with. When you speak of accuracy and precision as being antithetical to fine art, how do you explain photorealism or the work of people like Chuck Close? (Or, may the Earth open up under my feet or his, Jeff Koons and his lackeys?)

Fine art is simply an arena, a marketplace. The term 'fine art' has nothing to do with the quality of the work in question -- rather it is work that is packaged and sold in galleries that are supported by a particular subculture, one that has a very strong class bias.

I've got a theory that one of the reasons why so much current fine art is ugly, boring, stupid, and incompetently executed is specifically because it's intended to serve as an investment. That stuff is so nasty that the purchaser doesn't have to worry about their spouse wanting to take it out of storage and display it.

Interestingly, a number of years ago I was offered a gallery show. On inspecting my portfolio the person who made me the offer hummed pleasantly at the abstract work, the work based on life drawings and observation, the conceptual stuff -- and homed in on the dinosaurs.

So go figure.

This may be of interest --

I agree with Brian. The line between art and utility is not so clear.

If an architect designs a building to be aesthestically pleasing, the building still is utilitarian (such as a living space or library or office building), but that doesn't make it not art. The work of the great architects of our time is considered art.

If music is used for healing (leaving aside whether it is woo, the fact is people hire musicians for purposes which are not strictly music appreciation), it is still considered art.

Some of the dinosaur art is really great, and far surpass the artistic level of an engineering diagram.

While I can see that engineering diagrams are not art for art's sake, I don't agree that something which is not produced purely for art appreciation is automatically disqualified from being art. It took an artist to produce it, working, as all artists do, backwards towards the idea of the original vision of a project, using skills from the artist's toolbox.

With the possible exception of engineering diagrams, electrical schemata, or chemical diagrams, the perspective of the artist is also bound to have some influence on the outcome of the work.

In the case of dinosaur art, all kinds of things, like the placement of plants or water or, the way the sky is depicted, the activity that the dinosaurs are seen engaging in, all involve essentially aesthetic decisions affecting the final look and feel of the work. Those touches in the work are not scientific deductions, they are aesthestic decisions. Even stuff like skin color and thickness, and other details not explicitly preserved in the fossils or easy to deduce from the remains, may come down to how the scientist wants these things shown, which is an aesthetic decision, not directly a result of the fossil data.

I think art can and does have many functions besides providing something for people to look at and say "wow, cool!" (or, alternatively, "yuck!")

I would agree with Brian and say that art has been indispensable in helping scientists, and also physicians, to communicate aspects of their work to the public.

Others were posting as I was writing my post. Reading back, this idea -

The fine art world traces its Western trajectory from cave paintings and ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religious worship-markings,

means that cave art is not art, since it was produced for a different purpose (hunting success or ritual purposes). And it implies that all religious artwork, including depictions of the life of Jesus and the Mother Mary are not art, because their purpose is religion, not art appreciation.

Much ancient Egyptian work is not art either, since it's purpose was religious, or political (to glorify the Pharoah and convince everybody that he was a blood relative of the Gods).

By this strict definition, we are left with fruit bowls and landscapes, and abstracts which "explore tensions" as noted.

Everything else is disqualified from being art.

I don't think that's a workable definition of art.

Yo, Seed, he's right. Dinosaur pictures are art. In terms of technique and composition they are high art. The typical fantasy book cover is better art than most of the self-indulgent wank fests currently on gallery walls. Tell those lack wit elitist pigs who say other wise to get bent.

What is the difference between Leonard Elmore and Charles Dickens?

Dickens is in the public domain.

I will propose a market-based and functional definition of "fine art" or "high art" or "real art":

If someone is, or would be, willing to buy it simply for the purpose of looking at it and appreciating it aesthetically in its own right -- as opposed to buying it only for some supporting utilitarian function, such as to illustrate some concept ("see Figure A") or use in an advertising or marketing piece -- then it is "art."

Note that even pieces originally commissioned as book illustrations or advertising work might attain the status of art, transcending their original purpose, if someone later comes to appreciate them as art.

I think that plenty of paleontological illustration would qualify as real art.

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 01 Sep 2008 #permalink

To Sean, and Yogi-One,

Please don't misunderstand, I agree, it is real art, and very valuable - - I personally believe its value in the public arena should be much higher than it probably is, not just in $$ but also in its value as noble, respectable, and worthy of public respect. If I have been unclear it was perhaps in an attempt at brevity.

Chuck Close did achieve wonderful degrees of realism, and at the risk of further over-simplifying the complex world of fine art, I would still maintain his art had value for its tension as being realistic, yet unreal in the size of his canvases (they are friggin' huge).

"Fine Art" as a term is not interested currently in illustration for the most part. It also lays claim in countless textbooks to a trajectory stemming from caves and religious art from Mesopotamia, to Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, to Europe. Many books written in the past few decades have pointed out this may be a false link, (such as Believing is Seeing by M.A. Staniszewski)since as you point out Yogi-One, they purpose was very different in creating the what-we-now-call art object.

I think the problem is in confusing the terms "art", "real art" and "fine art". Fine Art culture is a specific culture worldwide and goes through its phases and local differences. From my schooling in its history, I can say it was not at all interested in illustration as "fine art".

Illustration is however real art, art, and very precious to me. Speaking from experience, my own art was not popular and I add quite a bit of surreal and fantasy elements to my 'scientific'-ish illustration.

I wish the fine art world saw paleo-illustration as Fine Art: wait a hundred years and it may. To pick a popular example, Van Gogh was not popular in his day; it took hindsight to see what advancements in technique and 'seeing' he created.

My apologies for being unclear, and to Brian for this lengthy answer.

Hi Brian, thanks for the review of our book. One small favor to ask: can you correct the name of the book title in your post? It's A History of Paleontology Illustration (not Paleontological, although I also have a tendency to type fact I just had to correct the same typo on our blog!) Best, Laura

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and sent it out to magazines purported to feature articles at the intersection of science and culture. The response I got was almost uniformly the same.

feature articles at the intersection of science and culture. The response I got was almost uniformly the same. Not only were the magazines not interested in dinosaurs, but illustrations of dinosaurs were not art. As M.J.T. Mitchell

1840-1931" form the basis of each chapter. Even within sections there is sometimes the tendency to jump around, and as a whole the book lacks a strong narrative voice.

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